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Kanon of St. Kosmas for the Nativity of Christ by Jessica Suchy-Pilalis

Happy new year! Christ is baptized! For those of you on the Old Calendar — well, hope Nativity Eve is treating you well and you get all the All-Night Vigil you’re able to handle. Theophany falls on Sunday next year on the New Calendar, and I’ve suggested to the priest here that we do a full All-Night Vigil for it. I’m not sure how seriously he took it, and I’m not sure how seriously I meant it, but we’ll see. I figure if you start at 9pm, you’re done by 5am, and then you just sleep all day. What’s the problem?

It is a bit late, and I have been somewhat otherwise occupied to give this the full attention it deserved before Christmas, but in all fairness it didn’t come to my attention until rather late in the game in the first place. Dr. Jessica Suchy-Pilalis — herself an IU alumna — has published her setting of the first Nativity canon using Archimandrite Ephrem Lash’s translation, having recomposed the melodies by applying the Byzantine compositional principles to the English text. While I’m not enough of an expert in the formulae to be able to evaluate the setting at that level, I can say that it is very singable — certainly much more singable than the Kazan equivalent. Be aware that there is a small handful of typographical errors in the psaltic notation — I believe it will be shipping with an errata sheet in the future — but they are quite minor and if you follow the line where you think it’s going rather than what the notation says in these cases, you’ll wind up in the right spot.

One person made the comment to me that they found it odd that Lash’s translation doesn’t include the Nativity greeting in its customary English form, “Christ is born, glorify him!” and that as a result, strictly from a textual standpoint, they found Dr. Suchy-Pilalis’ setting unusable, even if it may be a more accurate rendering of the Greek. “Christ is born, give glory” is how Lash translates Χριστὸς γεννᾶται, δοξάσατε, and yes, it’s closer to the Greek. Lash’s translations are excellent renderings into modern English, but he does tend to disregard established ways of saying things in English when he thinks they’re wrong. As has been discussed here before, he makes an excellent argument for why the Trisagion is better translated as “Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”, but it still apparently sounds wrong to a lot of people. He also translates Χριστὸς ἀνέστη as “Christ HAS risen,” which better conveys the past tense of ἀνέστη (more literally, “Christ rose” or “Christ stood up”). “Christ is risen” is an archaic form of the perfect tense in English (think “Joy to the world! The Lord is come” or “Spring is sprung, the grass is ris”), but we don’t use it that way anymore, so there’s some shift of meaning. For me, the more “traditional” English translations can be quite awkward from time to time (Nasser’s Mode III Resurrectional Theotokion, for example — “Thee, who art the Mediatrix for the salvation of our race, we praise, O Virgin Theotokos” etc.), and I tend to find that Lash knows what he’s talking about, so I’m happy enough to use his translations when I have the chance.

Anyway, I got this in time to sing it at our Nativity Matins — the katabasiae, anyway, since we don’t do full canons at All Saints — and it worked well, even if the second canon was in pseudo-Jacobean (or “hieratic”, as my godson Lucas puts it) English. The pronouns didn’t match, but nobody died. Nobody has ever complained about pronouns not matching (at All Saints, we don’t have a uniform English approach in our Sunday morning Divine Liturgy to begin with, let alone the rest of our liturgical practice) but if anybody ever does complain, I want to find a nice way of saying, “This is the current state of Orthodox liturgical translation in English. If you don’t like it, please send a note with your suggested solutions to the bishop along with a check that says ‘Translation Fund’ in the memo. No? Then you can live with the pronouns not matching.”

There are a couple of little things I might criticize — I’ve had English rules of choral diction hammered into my head enough over the years that I really don’t like it when people set diphthongs as two syllables. It might make sense from a standpoint of compositional principles, but to sing it that way sounds terribly strange to my ears. I also wish she had included slow katabasiae. Still, these are quibbles that don’t take away from the excellent work Dr. Suchy-Pilalis has done. It’s too late for this year, but do keep it in mind for next year. It’s the kind of effort that needs to be encouraged and rewarded, and most importantly, actually sung in parishes.

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